Death By Diphtheria

Week 44: #52 Ancestors – Scary Stuff

By Eilene Lyon

Confronting our own mortality is one of the scariest things we ever do. My research into the 19th-century lives of my ancestors and kin has revealed many awful ways to die. I’ve previously discussed milk sickness and tuberculosis. A few recent coincidences led me to diphtheria.

While walking around the Nevada City living history museum with the “midwife,” she described to me how diphtheria victims would grow a membrane across their throats that would suffocate them if she didn’t stick a poker into their airways to tear it. I was suitably horrified at the image. I will not gross you out with photos – the links below will take you to them, if you want to see the effects of this disease.

Not long after I came home, I was scanning some notes written by my grandmother about the Ransom family and found a notation about a Dr. Ransom and the Nobel Prize. An internet search led me to an article about Dr. Emil von Behring, first winner of the Nobel for Medicine in 1901 for his research on diphtheria.1

One of the first vials of diphtheria antitoxin, developed based on Dr. von Behring’s research. (Wikimedia Commons)

Oh, that disease again! So what about Dr. Ransom? Dr. Frederick Parlett Fisher Ransom was a doctor in Norfolk, England, and professor at the University of London, who was at one time a colleague of Dr. Behring.2 No relation of mine, and I never found any Dr. Ransom who ever won a Nobel. So much for Grandma’s research note – trash! (I find a number of dead ends this way.)

Going through random people in my tree for last week’s post, I came across a death by diphtheria in the Rowley family line.  Lulu Mary Rowley was the niece of my 3rd great-grandmother, Mary P. (Rowley) Cutting. That makes her my 1st cousin four times removed.

Lulu was the daughter of George A. Rowley and Mary Elizabeth Hubbell, born in Charlotte, Chittenden County, Vermont, in July 1862 in the midst of the Civil War.3 A month later, her cousin Cassius Newell, who had volunteered to serve, died of dysentery in Virginia.4

When Lulu was a year and a half old, her father died of consumption, age 39.5 It was not an auspicious beginning to a baby girl’s life. Her mother remarried and in 1866 and 1869, Lulu acquired two half-sisters, Jennie and Stella White.

About the only other thing I know of young Lulu’s life is that at age 14 she attended school at the Charlotte Seminary and her grade of 18.5 (20 being perfect) put her below average. None of the students had a 20, and the lowest grade was 18.1.6

This notice appeared in the Burlington Weekly Free Press on March 22, 1878 –

The following year, 1878, saw epidemics of diphtheria flow through northern Vermont. Mrs. White (widowed a second time) and her three daughters were all taken ill.7 The bacteria that cause this disease do not kill, but they produce a toxin that affects various organs: heart, kidneys, and nervous system, as well as the respiratory system. A related bacterium can cause grotesque skin lesions.

This illustration depicts a photomicrograph of a specimen harvested from an 18 hour culture, processed using the Albert’s staining method, and reveals the presence of numerous Corynebacterium diphtheriae bacteria. (Centers for Disease Control  – Public Health Image Library)

Symptoms appear two to seven days after infection, usually by air, and include fever, fatigue, difficulty breathing, a hoarse cough, possible swelling of the throat, and cyanosis (blue skin) due to lack of oxygen.8 Complications can include myocarditis, paralysis, and kidney failure.9

Humans are uniquely susceptible to diphtheria, thanks to having tonsils. The bacteria lodge in them and the toxin kills surrounding tissue. It is this dead tissue that builds up and creates a pale gray pseudomembrane that can choke off the airway. Sometimes a tracheotomy is required to restore breathing.

Elizabeth White and her two younger daughters recovered, but Lulu succumbed to her illness on March 14th, not yet 16.10 She was hardly alone in her suffering, as the disease carried away many of her fellow Vermonters that year. Over in England, even royalty were not spared. Queen Victoria’s daughter, Princess Anne and her family fell ill, the princess herself fatally.

Lulu’s extended family would have prepared her body for display in her home and burial. The following day she would be taken to the cemetery, the family and friends also responsible for digging the grave.11 She was laid to rest near her father, George Rowley, in Barber Cemetery in Charlotte.12

Her mother joined her just a few years later, followed by Jennie, Lulu’s half-sister, who was just 20 when she died in 1889. Of this seemingly cursed family, only Stella White lived a somewhat long life to 63, marrying, but having no children.

(Wikimedia Commons)

While diphtheria has not been entirely eradicated, it has become very rare, thanks to vaccination protocols. Usually children receive inoculation for diphtheria along with protection from pertussis (whooping cough) and tetanus. Thanks to the work of many dedicated scientists and physicians over many decades, we no longer have to fear this scary disease.

Doctor administering the Schick test for immunity to diphtheria. Having had the disease does not necessarily make one immune. (Wikimedia Commons)

Feature image: View of Camel’s Hump Mountain from Charlotte, Vermont (Wikimedia Commons)

  3. Lulu M. Rowley. Vermont, Vital Records, 1720-1908 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2013. Birth date calculated from death record and age at death. 
  4. Cassius Newell. U.S., Registers of Deaths of Volunteers, 1861-1865 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2012. 
  5. George Rowley. Vermont, Vital Records, 1720-1908 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2013. 
  6. Burlington Weekly Free Press. January 5, 1877, p.4 – via 
  7. Burlington Weekly Free Press. March 22, 1878, p.4 – via Lulu died eight days earlier. So much for timely news. 
  9. and 
  10. See note 3. 
  11. Death is everywhere present  page 27 (2) 

42 thoughts on “Death By Diphtheria

Add yours

    1. I neglected to mention one of the more famous outbreaks, the one that precipitated the race to Nome, Alaska. I watched a film about it at the local film festival a couple years ago, but it didn’t reveal exactly how the children were dying, just that it was diphtheria.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Although I knew of diphtheria and that it was dangerous, I never really knew much about it, until now. Thanks this was really informative. I can imagine the panic a family back then must have felt when one of them became ill.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. That was interesting, loved the old photo of the vial. A recent episode of Transplant, a medical show about a Syrian doctor transplanted to Canada), highlighted this deadly disease, because the doctor had seen cases before in Syria where vaccines were scarce, and knew about the membrane. The teenage patient had a mother who was an anti-vaxer and so was susceptible. It was a tv show, but a good message to vaccinate…..

    Liked by 3 people

  3. This was an interesting and informative post, Eilene, and so frighteningly parallel to the epidemic we are suffering through these days. History and your presentation here have a way of softening the blow of disappointment and fear we are living through.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. I’ve heard of diphtheria, but not to this extent. Thanks for this.

    I’ve been systematically scouring the archives of the Cobalt Daily Nugget starting in 1909 — apart from the mining news (tons of silver shipped, or new veins discovered) the majority of the content is related to accidents, disease, and deaths. Gruesome reading. Some days I can remain removed from it, but others I have to step away from the keyboard. Typhoid and smallpox were the two most prevalent diseases of the day.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I am ashamed to admit that I couldn’t read past the section on all the ways diptheria harmed organs. I guess all the COVID anxiety made it just too hard to read. Even though I know we now have a diptheria vaccine.

    Great research though!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Well, I can’t say I enjoy writing about the Holocaust, but that I do feel compelled to do so.

        And I am really squeamish about medical things! Sorry!

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Great article, Eilene. Life was not easy during those times and then to deal with life threatening illnesses too. And have to bury your loved ones yourself! (And we complain about wearing a mask?)

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I first learned about Diphtheria through the movie “Balto” – but as it’s a child’s animated movie, it doesn’t go into this kind of detail about what exactly the illness does. A very informative post! This post (and your mention of all the horrid ways to die in the past) also reminds me a bit of a book I recently finished called “the Last of the Doughboys.” It was always interesting to hear from the centennials about how things considered mild in our own era were downright deadly back then.


  8. I found a 1924 newspaper article for my mom’s cousins–the family (5 kids) was quarantined for almost 2 months with diptheria, with one of the 4-year-old twins dying from it. The mother gave birth to child #6 during that time, and the baby was sent to live with an aunt until everyone was well (about another month). Presumably the father was quarantined, as well, so no income for that time frame. I can’t even imagine!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m a little curious about the baby’s birth–I’m pretty sure it would have been a home birth (my uncle’s was, 2 years later in the same town–my mom’s probably was 2 years earlier, too). Was it her house (and baby whisked away to the other house)? Her sister’s (leaving the baby there, and she going home)? Or DID the mother go to the hospital, to minimize the baby’s exposure? SOMEONE broke quarantine, I just don’t know who. The “baby” passed away in early 2019, so I can’t ask her–if she even knew. I think there’s been more community support these last 6 months than we realize. I saw a lot of offers on NextDoor by people “suddenly home” offering to run errands for people who felt concerned about going out. I think it’s just not as obvious, now. In “normal times” I think church members fill that gap, just without the public notice.

        Liked by 1 person

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